Children undergo physical, intellectual, and emotional development as they age and experience the world. In similar ways, they experience racial development too. They begin to recognize differences in skin color as early as six months of age. By the age of five, many children start to not only realize that different groups are treated differently, but also recognize that racial groups can be “ranked.”
At my predominantly black elementary school, I played on my kindergarten playground. A boy at my school started taunting and screaming at me, “Your mother is white, your mother is white!” His loud and angry voice carried across the schoolyard. My beautiful mother, my favorite person in the world, walked me to school every morning. Up until that moment, I don’t ever remember registering the color of my mother’s skin; only its warmth and lovely smell. Returning home that day, as I ran into the kitchen, I too began screaming. While stomping my feet and through tears, I demanded, “Why didn’t you tell me you were white; why didn’t you tell me?” Shocked, taken aback and as her eyes also welled up with tears, my mother sat me on her lap. She proceeded to explain to me how black people in the United States could have “white” skin. That day, on my mother’s lap, with the smell of chicken baking in the oven, I listened to my first history lesson about the abomination called chattel slavery. I was five years old.
I suppose that was the first day of my journey to understand issues of race, privilege, and oppression. We need to begin courageous conversations with our children at a very young age. It is crucial to start our journey to unlearn some of the prejudices we have picked up along the way. As we develop a culturally competent mindset, our conversations with our children become more accurate and support their healthy racial development.